Budbreak 2023: Another Reminder of Our Largest Variable, Nature
April 13, 2023
By Austin Collins
Since my last blog in December, we've had over 46 inches of rain and 60+ below-freezing nights, a harsh winter for us Californians. Although, as I write this, we are experiencing our first proper spring weather, three weeks after the spring equinox. With day temperatures in the high 6o's and 70's, and warmer nights, things have drastically changed here at Tablas Creek. The tasting room now has a bustling patio of people rather than being strapped down for another onslaught of wind and rain. Cover crops and annual grasses have doubled in size, and even though we still have flowing water in some parts of the of the property, most of the saturated soils have dried out enough to allow tractors to re-enter the vineyard. The air is filled with the smell of mowed grasses and the sounds of some clearly excited birds. Soil temperatures have also risen due to the decrease in moisture, allowing buds to finally "break". Across the hilltops vines are leafing out at a rather hurried pace. With change all around us its hard to ignore our industry's innate connection with nature and its systems. Nature dictates EVERYTHING in this business. From newly planted vines to the wine your glass, the path is rarely straight and sunny, and you can count on it to never look the same:
Above is a Bourboulenc vine just bursting to life on April 12th, 2023. Below is a Bourboulenc vine in the same block, give or take a few rows and vines, on April 1st, 2022. Note the differences in shoot growth as well as the color and size of the cover crop beneath:
The contrast in the above photos is stark, and this true of every inch of the property. This season (beginning July 1st of 2022) we have received 49.01" of rain. That is only .18" fewer than the previous three seasons combined! We've had twelve atmospheric rivers this season. During several of these my family and I were the only ones on the property, for days at a time. My work days consisted of dressing up like a fisherman and maintaining a few different water pumps in hard hit flooded areas. Those pumps ran for 48-hours straight before the water levels began to subside. It was fun while it was novel, but then each rainy day following (there were many) the water had no where to go, do it began to eat away at the soils and our wet weather enthusiasm.
Due to the weather our tasting room, office halls, and vineyard roads were empty for a total of six days, devoid of human sound and movement. All roads leading to and from the property were either washed out or simply impassable by car. We were an island in the Adelaide. I think its fair to say that most business are affected by extreme weather, but given our location we are slightly more vulnerable. As Jason mentioned in his last blog our foot traffic was down 19% this quarter, in comparison to 2022. The natural landscapes have held up well, with the visible damage mostly limited to areas scarred by man. Back in the vineyard we saw predictable spots get washed out, but considering the amount of water flowing through our humble hills, it has held up wonderfully. Now, we are able to continue our work as usual, because nature has allowed us to:
It's a spring situation in the vineyard right now, a situation we are very ready for. This is the first time we've had to wait until April for significant budbreak since 2013, making it the latest start in the last decade, about a month behind that average:
2021: Last week of March
2020: Last week of March
2019: Second half of March
2018: Second half of March
2016: Very end of February
2015: Second week of March
2013: First week of April
After about six months of dormancy, lying in wait, now the vines are showing their eagerness to get this vintage underway and enjoy the sunshine:
These two pictures are both taken in our second oldest Viognier block. The above photo was taken on April 11th, 2023, the one below was taken on March 29th, 2021. Again notice the differences despite the 2023 photo being taken two weeks later in the year:
Amongst the bustle of spring activities happening here at the vineyard is the preparation of frost protection. We are currently somewhat "safe", as the budbreak is mostly on the hilltops, which are less at risk of frost. Once vines leaf out in the frost-prone valleys and swales we then have to employ all of our efforts to keep the small vulnerable sprouts safe. Because I live here on the property it is my job to help keep an eye on night-time temperatures. When it drops to about 37 degrees (and still before 5 AM) I layer up and head out to turn on the frost fans and micro-sprinklers to battle the incoming ice. I do so alone, for I truly believe my dog Nina is afraid of the dark. Alas it is her loss, because there are few more beautiful moments in the vineyard. Ice crystals beginning to form on surfaces, sparkling in the light of my headlamp, while silence grips the landscape, everything seemingly too cold to move. From fan to fan my night carries on disrupting the once-enjoyable silence. But, it is not in vain, to see the new growth still green and pushing in the next morning's sun I look forward to the upcoming night and my fray with nature.
Another uncharacteristic element of this year's budbreak is the relative consistency among varietals. Typically we see certain varietals leaf out before others (e.g. Viognier and Grenache before Roussanne and Counoise). While many of those later varietals are still behind there is a lot more uniformity in regards to timing. That being said, Grenache leads the way this year with the largest growth thus far, using all its stored energy built up over the last six months. Like us, the vines have been unable to do their work because, like us, they are bound by the forces of nature. Now, it's go time, for all of us.